Marion Roach Smith is the author of The Memoir Project. This is just the kind of book memoir writers need to develop their work and create a successful and enjoyable memoir project–because it IS a project to write a memoir!
Welcome, Marion Roach Smith. And tune into her interview at NPR July 13!
1. Talk to us about why you wrote your book The Memoir Project. What motivated you, what are you offering that’s different?
Many thanks for the chance to talk with you. I’ve long admired your association.
A few years ago my sister, Margaret Roach, left her job as editorial director of Martha Stewart Omnimedia, and was immediately offered the chance to write what we now call a “drop-out” memoir. She would be the first to tell you that she took the book contract, and then spent six months organizing her Tupperware. As the deadline began to loom, she made comments to me along the lines of, “Hmmm, this is hard,” and “Huh, so you’ve been teaching this for more than ten years. What, ah, do you tell your students, anyway?”
So I started to send her little tips and nudges. The younger sister, I was more amused by this than she was, I think. That memoir is hard. That you can’t just go to the desk and get it right the first time. She and I shared a blog we call She Said, She Said, housed on the website, The Sister Project dot com, and soon I was posting those nudges on the site. They were very popular. And as Margaret got writing, and readers started commenting, Margaret suggested we turn my memoir advice into a book.
We did, and self-published it in 2010. And only after we had, we showed it to our agent, (we share the same agent, Kris Dahl, at ICM) who freaked out, though in a good way. She took it out to the market. Renamed, with expanded pages and a new title, it’s now out from Grand Central Publishing.
What differentiates the book and all my teaching is my firm belief that writing prompts, exercises, “morning pages” and the like, do nothing more than steal time for busy people who want to learn to write memoir. I believe in writing with intent, and that’s what I teach. The nudges I sent to my sister were questions that provoked her to write small, on her topic, one theme at a time. I call them provocations.
2. What kinds of things do beginning memoir writers struggle with, and how do you help to solve these issues?
I believe that everyone has a story to tell, but that most people confuse memoir with autobiography, and get bogged down telling too big a tale. You are not writing your autobiography when you write memoir, and while entire academic conferences are devoted to howling over the semantic differences, I keep this distinction pretty simple by defining autobiography as a book-length depiction of one’s entire life, and memoir as depicting a specific aspect of that life. When students arrive saying they want to write “my memoirs,” I’ll immediately attempt to redirect that to be “a memoir.” And then we’ll look for a theme, as well as an illustration of that theme, so that anyone reading it will not only understand what they’ve read, but will feel the pull of the universal in the specific tale.
3. You include a lot of personal writing in your book. Were these pieces you already had done as personal essays, or were they written specifically for the book?
Many of them are repurposed essays that I’ve read on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, pieces I published as a parenting columnist for the New York Daily News, and blog posts from The Sister Project dot com.
4. You mention that 750 words is an ideal length for a personal essay. Please discuss how you use this form to help people write their memoir vignettes.
At about 750 words, a personal essay gives the writer more than enough space to tell one tale from her point of view. But it’s hard work. Writing a personal essay takes discipline, evoking that great dictum of art, that you must learn to draw before you can learn to paint. Essays require the same kind of control as drawing, and control is all about making hard choices about what to put in or leave out. And while everyone seem to want to tell their stories, few understand that they must be told one illustrative scene at a time.
5. You also mention that this is a perfect way to get into a long form memoir. Please talk about how this kind of essay helps with the longer project.
People frequently tell me that they fully intend to write a piece of memoir just as soon as they understand the meaning of their lives. Longing to do so, these potential writers suffer needlessly, since the marvelous truth is that you can take on life in bits, at any age, under any circumstances. To write a compelling essay, you need merely to be amazed how, when explaining intimacy to your adolescent child, you gained some quiet understanding of your own sexuality; or, when it is you became comfortable with the fact that much of marriage is pantomime, where looking interested, and making the gestures of engaged listening are good enough to get you both through to the next day. Wait to “understand” adolescents or marriage and you’ll never, ever write. Mere flashes are all the understanding you need bring to the writing table.
Because when you have a flash of understanding on one topic, you can write an essay. Write an essay and you tackle a scene. Master the scene and you can write 75 of them and have yourself a book. And here’s an unexpected dividend: Write a book about an aspect of your life and you might gain perspective, since just as in living, success in writing is all about which details you choose to emphasize.
6. You have it in for writing prompts and exercises! Talk about why you think these are useless and what you offer instead for those who feel stuck in their writing.
There are many good books on writing, as well as several on writing memoir. What differentiates mine is my total rejection of writing prompts, exercises or those absurd “morning pages,” all of which lead people directly into being stuck, and not really writing. Those prompts are the new crack. Like the shots hit directly from a tennis pro to the waiting racquet of a beginning player, prompts give a false sense of skill. Without them, and facing a blank screen for the first time, writers freeze on the page and default to telling their tale on Facebook or in scrapbooks. I know: my classes are filled with people in recovery from such prompts, pages and mere exercises. Use enough of them and you’ll be hooked — and stuck — for life.
I teach people to transpose their story into a universal experience that interests others. And when the writers see their stories shift like that, they want to write for real, right away, whether it be for their children, their spouses, or for publication.
7. What are the three main tips you’d suggest to help memoir writers get their long memoir project done?
I have a little handout I call my Memoir Manifesto. It’s ten points. I’ll give you the first three here.
1. Stop practicing, and write with intent.
2. Stake out your territory.
3. Write what you know.
8. What else do you think it’s important for memoir writers to know about?
To behave like Galileo in WalMart. That’s right. Consider Galileo in the big box store. Imagine the master standing amid the deep fryers, digital cameras and lawn chairs. All he wants is the one small part he needs to perfect the telescope. Then he’ll prove that the earth revolves around the sun, and not the other way around, as was standard message of the church in his time. Seeking a small item to prove a big theory, Galileo must not get distracted by the Christmas icicle lights and stainless steel slow cookers, the ionized hairdryers and six-time-zone watches. He must go into Walmart, get only what he needs, and come back out. Then he’ll convince us to see the universe the way he does.
Yours is the same assignment. You must speed-shop your overstocked whiz-bang subconscious, snagging only those items tagged by the subject you’ve chosen, leaving all those other pretty, shiny, digital, marked-down objects on the shelves. It’s as though you must carry a custom-made magnet, attracting merely the smallest, precisely charged metal shavings. This is not easy. But mastering the skill of a good quick grab is essential to your success.
9. Any exercises you suggest—oh, just kidding. Thank you for sharing your ideas with us.
Love that. You made me laugh right out loud.
I laughed out loud at that last question, too. Good questions and good answers. Like your sister, Marion, I need your blunt advice. Back to writing!
Dear Linda and Marion,
This is such an enlightening and entertaining interview with so many pearls- ” writing for real and transposing our stories into a universal experience”. Marion, I find your take on prompts to be very intriguing and I hope to catch one of your local memoir workshops in Columbia Co. I’m about 1.5 hrs North in Fulton Co.Thank you both and I too laughed out loud at #8!